January and February are the peak months for seasonal affective disorder (SAD) symptoms, which include fatigue, low mood, poor motivation, hopelessness and social withdrawal. Up to 60% of adults have symptoms of SAD and research suggests that adults with ADHD may experience these symptoms more often than adults without ADHD. SAD symptoms aren’t discussed as often in teenagers, but they do develop in some teens and even in some children. In fact, in clinical practice, I have seen many teenagers with ADHD who have symptoms of SAD that make it harder for them to manage their ADHD during the peak winter months.
What does Seasonal Affective Disorder look like in teens with ADHD?
Picking up on symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder in teens with ADHD can be tricky. The symptoms often come on gradually and it may seem at first like their ADHD symptoms are getting worse out of the blue, or like a spike in “normal” teenager behavior – things like sleeping in late or having a very hard time getting up on school days, becoming more irritable than usual, seeming tired throughout the day, and a big dip in motivation. ADHD symptoms that were pretty well managed will also worsen, like difficulty concentrating, forgetfulness, and disorganization. When these symptoms are paired with some hallmark features of depression, there is reason to suspect that your teen may be struggling with SAD. These features include increased social isolation, no longer enjoying activities that they previously looked forward to, and – in the case of SAD – a similar pattern of symptoms and behavior (sometimes less severe) during a previous winter season.
What Can You Do to Help?
If you suspect that your teen has SAD, your first step should be a conversation with your teen about the symptoms you are seeing. Some teens will be open to this conversation and others may shut down, but simply starting the discussion will help them know that you care. Regardless of whether your teen agrees with you about their symptoms, schedule a time to talk with their pediatrician or mental health provider about what you’re seeing and why you’re concerned. Ideally your teen will participate in this discussion as well, but not all teens may have the insight or desire to be included. Many of the treatments that work for depression, like talk therapy and medication, are effective for SAD as well. Your teen’s pediatrician or mental health provider can provide or connect you with treatments that may be effective. In addition to seeking mental health treatment for your teen, there are some things you can do as a family that may be helpful. Overall, increasing physical activity and outdoor time, scheduling activities that reduce the amount of time your teen spends alone (and socially isolated), encouraging your teen to participate in activities that are fun for them and may give their mood a boost, and doing what you can to help them maintain a consistent sleep routine can all be helpful. Lastly, help your teen by also making sure you are taking care of yourself. Parenting a teen with ADHD is hard, and when SAD or depression are added to the mix it can take a toll on your ability to be patient, kind, and caring with your teen. Do your best to avoid getting run down so you can be there for your teen as they work on getting better.
Mary Rooney, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco. Dr Rooney is a researcher and clinician specializing in the evaluation and treatment of ADHD and co-occurring behavioral, anxiety, and mood disorders. A strong advocate for those with attention and behavior problems, Dr. Rooney is committed to developing and providing comprehensive, cutting edge treatments tailored to meet the unique needs of each child and adolescent. Dr. Rooney's clinical interventions and research avenues emphasize working closely with parents and teachers to create supportive, structured home and school environments that enable children and adolescents to reach their full potential. In addition, Dr. Rooney serves as a consultant and ADHD expert to Huntington Learning Centers.
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